Crisis Management: Rumsfeld – Why he is down now – and what you can learn from it: crisis communications
I have been puzzling over the arc of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: from yesterday’s media darling to today’s target.
In a January 2002 column, just months after 9/11, I complimented the Defense Secretary’s communications skills, described how his adroit news conferences were must-see TV within the Beltway and how they provided good examples of message delivery. I wrote, “…Donald Rumsfeld’s greatest accomplishment has been to convey to a Sept. 11-stunned America that a thoughtful, reassuring professional is serving as Secretary of Defense and protecting lives and freedom. Such is the power of being a good communicator.”
So what’s changed in almost three years? How could the mostly admired Rumsfeld of 2002 be the same man who recently: dismissed without empathy the complaints of a U.S. soldier wanting more armor in Iraq, signed condolence letters with an auto-signature device, and prompted leaders of his own party to criticize his war management?
Did charisma, verbal agility and early military success beguile us? Did a gruff external charm mask a fatal internal intolerance to opposition and an almost obsessive adherence to military strategies that began to fail?
Or is he a scapegoat Americans need for a troubling conflict: a logical thought with the deaths of 1300 troops, Abu Ghraib, and a surging insurgency on his watch.
Furthermore, what might his decline teach other leaders facing tough times?
I see overarching themes. Having worked with a number of executives managing crises, there are at least three accomplishments necessary for success. Your strategy must work, internal stakeholders must know what we are doing, and external audiences must be persuaded.
First the strategy. All else fails if this fails. Opinions about the war range from it being a hard struggle that can be won with sufficient resources and time, to a Vietnam-like quagmire. While we support our servicemen and women, Americans disagree on the progress. Strategy adjustments are often necessary and that requires encouraging and listening to dissenting opinions within. Honorable disagreement from loyal advisors can help avoid or lessen mistakes and ease course corrections. Rumsfeld reportedly does not brook disagreement. If true, that’s bad. And if substantial success doesn’t manifest soon in Iraq, this alone could undo Rumsfeld.
As for keeping internal audiences in the loop, the Secretary cannot be doing this well if GOP Senators McCain, Hegel and former military leaders like Schwarzkopf are openly critical. Either Rumsfeld hasn’t sufficiently explained what he is doing in Iraq, or what he is doing is inexplicable. Successful internal communications are almost as important as strategy. In fact they should be part of the strategy. Good internal communications can sometimes rescue you from serious initial blunders. Without them, all that’s been accomplished can be undermined because no one understands what you’re doing because you haven’t told them.
Finally, external audiences including you, me, the troops, military families, and the world, must be persuaded the U.S. is attempting the right thing. As a former military veteran, I marvel at the resiliency of our forces in the face of an Iraqi insurgency the likes of which even Colin Powell said he had not seen in his lifetime. Has Rumsfeld persuaded us we are on the right path? One can only hope that his absorption in war management has distracted him and set him up for the miscues mentioned earlier.
Finally, to be fair, Donald Rumsfeld did warn us that the Iraq War will take years, will continue to cost American lives, and that the U.S. must be patient and persist. He did not promise a quick victory as some political leaders did. There are signs he understands the fragility of his communications lapses. He socialized recently with media thought-leaders in DC and visited the troops Christmas Eve. He did, as you will recall, fully accept responsibility for the prison abuse scandal. He needs more communication wins, and, most of all, more success in Iraq. Patience with the Defense Secretary and the war is waning. The demise of Rumsfeld and perhaps the war itself could be just one “Tet Offensive” away.